ML XX – Day 1

After watching a great first day, I have taken some notes to share with the rest of you out there – enjoy!

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Session 1
Introductory remarks by Adam Engle, CEO and co-founder of the Mind & Life Institute, kicked off ML XX: Altruism and Compassion in Economics Systems. Rektor Andreas Fischer – the President of the University of Zurich – welcomed everyone and introduced the Dalai Lama. His Holiness then took the stage and stated flatly, “I do not know how to make money. But I know it can be useful.” He relayed a story where he asked one of his business friends about the roots of the current economic crisis, and his friend told him it was greed, possibly even the desire to cheat for profit. “Even I know this is bad for the economic system,” His Holiness said. He also spoke of a wish for all of us to continue striving for enhanced wisdom, and pondered whether the results of this conference may point toward a better direction for economic systems.

Roshi Joan Halifax, of Upaya Zen Center, outlined the direction of the conference and handed it over to the presenters. Dan Batson, of the University of Kansas, opened with a very direct question – Does altruism exist? After speaking about egoism and empathy, he referenced empathy-based experiments and what they might infer. Tania Singer, of the University of Zurich, explained two neural routes to understanding others’ minds – via empathy and compassion and via the “theory of mind,” the conscious thinking of someone else’s mental state. After explaining neural networks and their relation to compassionate thoughts and feelings, she talked of how some people have a deficit in comprehending their own feelings. Studies of meditation have been shown to help this deficiency. Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, followed up on these ideas and posited two big points – that there are different levels of empathy and compassion in people which have biological roots, and empathy and compassion can be regarded as skills which can be trained and enhanced. He then reviewed neuroscientific research in these areas; results showed that subjects who had more extensive mental training had a greater tendency to exhibit signs of altruism. Matthieu Ricard, of Shechen Monastary, presented last and helped enlighten the audience to Buddhist notions of compassion, empathy and altruism. For example, compassion is the desire to help alleviate suffering in others, whatever it may be.

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Session 2
The afternoon session began with Joan Silk of UCLA, who defined altruism biologically, as seen in other species. Research has shown that altruism is common and beneficial in many species. As humans develop during childhood, they trend away from this commonality in other species.

One notable exchange during the conversation with His Holiness went as follows. “Does hostility come from not being connected? For instance, if bees from one colony are mixed with bees from another colony, do they see each other as alien or other?” Joan replied, “There doesn’t seem to be much flexibility in their behavior, though I do not know much of bees. So the ‘outgroup’ or ‘other’ perspective seems to remain intact.” His Holiness mused, “Does biological altruism require the ability to appreciate others? Mosquitoes, I think, have no appreciation! One may land on me, and I let it feed. But then it flies away and shows no appreciation!”

Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich then talked about how true altruism in humans is rare, as we normally want or expect benefit for our costs, especially within economics. He defined altruism as actions to benefit an ‘other,’ but at cost to the actor and with no envisioned gain for the actor at the outcome, except possibly psychological benefit like happiness. Tania Singer then spoke about 3 motivational systems in the human brain: incentive-focused, threat-focused, and non-wanting-affiliation-focused. She talked of experiments to increase trust among individuals. John Dunne, of Emory University, explained compassion and altruism from the Buddhist perspective as they might relate to economics. One of the ultimate goals is happiness, so what are the costs and resources needed to attain that goal? The resources are internal, and thus of the highest value. If we can realign our priorities to focus on maintaining and enhancing our internal resources, we may see a shift toward a better economic system. He spoke of a Buddhist technique of internalizing the idea that all sentient beings were at some point your mother in a previous life; you can extend the feeling or connection you have with your mother to all beings. “Not that everyone has the greatest connection with their mother, but you understand what I mean,” John said. “I had a GOOD mother, though, just to be clear.” “So did I,” laughed His Holiness.

So, today was a ground-laying time of concepts and large ideas, setting us up for tomorrow, which will start exploring possibilities of where we go and of applied economics to further some of these ideas.